Even though a recent survey points to a rising reliance on PR in the marketing mix, it also shows that it remains surprisingly under-used. Idea Engineers' Mandy de Waal explains why the neglect of PR comes at a price.
A recent edition of the respected international magazine, Newsweek, shows Apple CEO Steve Jobs on the cover holding the newest version of the iPod MP3 player alongside the words 'iPod, therefore I Am' and 'Steve Jobs and the must-have music player everyone is talking about'. That is the kind of media coverage that no amount of money can buy - and an example of just how powerful public relations (PR) is as a tool for shaping public perceptions of brands and products.
PR - when used properly - is a marketing medium that drops the hype and concentrates on building reputation over time to attract the attention of a jaded public, hungry for credible messages. Just ask Apple how dazzling PR has helped to create a market of consumers who lavish a cult-like devotion on its products and an audience of journalists who are unashamedly in awe of the company's offerings.
It is surprising then, to learn that most marketers admit that they are nowhere near using PR to its full potential - even as they acknowledge that it is one of the most valuable and powerful tools they have in their marketing mix.
The second annual PRWeek Marketing Management Survey, conducted amongst 346 top-level marketers and brand managers in large US companies, reveals that marketers regard PR as the most effective marketing tool. However, the majority (54%) believe that it is underused. Also troubling is the revelation by 47% of respondents that PR is merely 'somewhat involved' in marketing strategy development. Only 41% say it is 'very involved'.
Neglected in SA too
PR and reputation management is underused in South Africa, too, and local companies would benefit from exploring the reasons for this neglect. Rand for rand, there is no better alternative for boosting the credibility of your company or product, than through top-tier business or trade press, or through an industry or PR programme that is strategically designed to influence analysts and other opinion leaders.
Part of the reason why PR is so cost-effective, is because it cuts to the heart of the matter. It is targeted at those whose opinions command respect, which underpins the credibility of the message. PR plays a significant role in driving word of mouth, through its ability to generate credible media coverage, influence analysts and to reach opinion leaders within society and industries.
It is precisely because it has the potential to influence the media that PR plays a pivotal role in building consumer trust and credibility - and, where necessary, restoring trust and credibility. As advertising noise rises and consumers switch off to advertising saturation, PR will play an even larger role in driving word of mouth and cutting through advertising to influence perceptions and build reputations.
Useful at all marketing stages
PR is also effective because it is versatile. Not only is it used at a strategic or initial stage of brand management, but it is applied on a day-to-day, tactical level.
PR can build credibility and trust through strategic programmes to build reputation over time, by reporting on a wide range of issues. Similarly, PR is uniquely qualified to help restore damaged brands or companies that are being negatively perceived, either directly or indirectly.
There are many more crucial uses for PR, as it is a powerful, cost-effective method of selling new ideas, breaking into new markets, changing long-standing beliefs, and launching companies. It is also essential for the rolling out of new products, services, features or solutions.
In short, PR is an integral component of any well-balanced and integrated marketing mix. The US-based survey highlights that marketers miss this point. Even though they rate PR highly in what it can do, they do not call in PR skills when tackling marketing issues. Asked who their most likely partner would be for aligning integrated communications, 34% say it would be a consulting company and 27% say it is an ad agency. Only 21% felt a PR agency would be an appropriate choice.
Use it or lose it
For a PR approach to deliver, it has to be used and applied properly by both marketers and by PR companies, where the latter may be partly responsible for the misconceptions about PR. For example, the perception that PR is confined to media relations must be shattered. PR people need to expand their role beyond media relations to brand building, reputation management and to internal brand communications.
Getting the most bang for your PR buck would depend on there being enough resources devoted to it. PR should make up a minimum of 15%-25% of the marketing budget, excluding expenses and overheads. Otherwise you may not be investing or allocating your resources optimally and could most likely be receiving lacklustre performance as a result. The more focused your PR efforts, the better the results. For example, the Pareto effect applies, where 80% of your positive editorial coverage should come from approximately 20% of your targeted, high-profile media, analysts and other key influencers.
Traditional brands can learn a great deal from the way leading technology companies run their PR campaigns. Powerful tech brands like Microsoft, Intel, Nokia, Apple and IBM, employ amongst the most aggressive and sophisticated PR models around. These brands were built largely on the pages of Fortune Magazine and the Wall Street Journal, before they were built by advertising.
As the technology industry is dynamic, fast moving and having to deal with a wide range of crises fairly often, it also understands issue management. Because of their understanding of technology, tech firms intuitively understand the role that the networked economy, the Internet, mobile technology and convergence play in PR.
There are few, if any, substitutes for PR, particularly if these efforts are employed in the best possible way. When carefully planned, PR can increase sales significantly, build brand momentum, enhance customer loyalty and contribute to the success of your integrated marketing efforts.
Source: Mandy de Waal is a founding director of IdeaEngineers, the brand and reputation consultancy that helps companies enhance market share, profitability and customer loyalty by managing and protecting their brand. Founded in 2002, Idea Engineers has enjoyed rapid growth with clients that include UUNET, Gold Reef City, Nashua Mobile, Consology, Valvoline, Can!do, the South African Post Office and Acceleration. More information on Idea Engineers is available at www.ideaengineers.co.za